The Dallas String Quartet is grappling with a bit of an identity problem.
Its name conjures visions of the traditional foursome that it has long been, performing renowned classical music compositions for guests at elegant galas, weddings, and even for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
But the quartet is also building a solid reputation as a rock act.
Backed by a drummer, guitarist, and keyboard player, the group wows crowds at concert venues throughout Texas — and, increasingly, across the nation — by plugging in their violins, viola, and cello and delivering high-energy covers of pop and hard rock chart-toppers.
The quartet has performed selections from its unlikely repertoire —which includes Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer,” Adele’s “Hello,” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” — at such large venues as AT&T Stadium, House of Blues Dallas, and AT&T Center in San Antonio.
In February, the group played at Uptown Theater in Grand Prairie and at the Cedarburg Performing Arts Center in Wisconsin.
The quartet, which took the stage at nearly 200 events last year, has also previously served as the opening act for such big names as Kenny G, Chicago, and Air Supply.
Having released its fourth album last summer, Dallas String Quartet Electric has amassed a sizeable fan base via Spotify and Pandora, as well as on YouTube.
Nevertheless, violist and principal musician Ion Zanca said, “To be honest with you, [the name is] working a little bit against us.”
In January, the group performed in New York City as part of a showcase hosted by the American Association of Performing Arts Presenters, a trade organization whose members include agents who book acts at entertainment venues around the world.
Zanca said some industry pros at the event were a bit perplexed about how to promote the quartet’s electrified shows to prospective audiences.
“They’re afraid if they just say string quartet, people are gonna think of it as a classic string quartet.” That’s why, he said, “Lately, we’ve just been going by DSQ Electric just to get a little bit outside of the string quartet [stereotype].”
Born in Romania to musician parents, Zanca founded Dallas String Quartet a decade ago while majoring in music at SMU. Back then, he recruited a few classmates to play side gigs with him to drum up extra cash.
The group’s lineup of classically trained musicians has changed over the years and now features bassist Young Heo and violinists Tatiana Glava and Melissa Priller. (Violinist and SMU alum Eleanor Dunbar also occasionally fills in.) During college, Zanca performed with both the Irving and the Plano Symphony Orchestra and subbed with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
“I liked it, but after a while I just couldn’t see myself doing it completely [as a career] because I really wanted to experiment and try new things,” he said.
The turning point came in 2008, when the Dallas String Quartet performed at a local charity ball. “I just felt like we were furniture, just there to look pretty [but] no one could really tell what we were playing,” he said. “So I thought, ‘There has to be a way we can really be heard.’”
He ordered a customized electric viola and soon began utilizing other specialized equipment during performances.
“We try to be inventive and use [effects] pedals and sounds to imitate voices” found in pop, rock, and jazz songs, 36-year-old Zanca said. “It’s a cool process.”
These days, most of DSQ Electric’s performances are separated into two parts: an arrangement of classical pieces and a second act of pop and rock songs.
They’re also fond of mashing together tunes. In one arrangement, the music of Paganini morphs into the Gloria Gaynor disco anthem “I Will Survive.”
Audiences “are just fascinated” by DSQ Electric’s concept of incorporating two musical genres into a single show, Zanca said. “The repertoire is so wide, literally from Bach to Bono, so … there’s something for everybody.”
Priller, a recent SMU graduate, joined the quartet in 2013. She also teaches at the Dallas Academy of Music and Performing Arts.
The 23-year-old Chicago native said she prefers to crank out rock tunes on her violin, which she began playing as a toddler.
“I always thought I could do the classical thing, but … my dream was to get into a more modern, contemporary electric – string group,” she explained.
The quartet’s repertoire “turns a lot of heads … and everyone always seems to have a positive response to it,” Priller said. “A lot of times people will say, ‘I like your version better than the original.’ That’s my favorite compliment.”